Empowering Young Learners against Fake News

We have trained them to be quiet and attentive in class. We have convinced them that questioning the teacher is the same as being disrespectful. We have tricked them into blindly believing in their textbooks –and, by extension, in almost anything in print. We have told them what to learn and how to do it. We have complimented them for thinking like we do and we have made their lives difficult when they don’t.

And then, when they can’t distinguish facts from bias, when they so easily succumb to fake news, when they believe that being popular and famous is enough proof for reliability, we are shocked. What were we expecting?

As long as we keep looking at schools as the places to transmit “The Knowledge”, we will be perpetuating the belief that people in places of authority should dictate what we know and how we think. Changing schools into crucibles for ideas and educators into patrons for critical thinking skills is an ever unfolding, challenging task. How do we start?

Step down from the shrine. A teacher is not someone who knows a great deal of things and passes them on to passive, ignorant students. The idea of an omniscient, illuminated teacher might appeal to the ego, but will be a disservice for young, untrained minds. Knowledge cannot be simply downloaded from one mind to the other, and human brains are not just data warehouses. When you teach, beware of mind-closing phrases like “this I the way it must be done”. And don’t be afraid of honestly saying “I don’t know the answer to that” from time to time.

Educate yourself. Acquiring a broad array of relevant knowledge is not enough, but it is the first step to becoming an educated citizen and responsible media consumer. If you have your facts straight, it is less likely that you will fall prey into false claims and propaganda. However, students also need the skills to identify reliable sources and properly process the growing amount of incoming information. Educate yourself, and your learners, in media literacy.

Get active. Create awareness about fake news and discuss how they can affect us. Present your students with both authentic and questionable posts and challenge them to tell them apart. Discuss how Facebook and Twitter are not filters, but merely platforms for content. Dig deep into motives and objectives of any published piece and bring them out in classroom debates. We combat fake news and propaganda precisely by exposing our children to them, with guidance and support, and not by hiding, ignoring or minimizing them. It is also crucial that our students stop and think twice before sharing and liking anything they find on social media: if they go ahead with all impulse and little reason, they become part of the problem.

We will never be able to completely shield our learners from all that is misleading and inaccurate in the media, so we better start teaching them how to outsmart the many ones out there who, for any reason, want to dumb them down.

 

As part of the Top Global Teacher Bloggers from Cathy Rubin’s Global Search for Education, this is my answer to this month’s question: How to we teach young people the rigorous critical thinking and research skills to distinguish news from propaganda? How do we ensure the next generation is one which communicates civically, values honesty, and recognizes reality?